Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Holidazzle fo' shizzle!

'Tis the season to be jolly! 'Tis also the season to eat your body weight in poultry and puddings and spend excessive amounts of money on gifts for people (that you may or may not like) out of a sense of obligation and in an attempt to not look like the only cheap-ass Scrooge at the family get together or office party. No matter what your financial situation in these trying times, 'Can we not do presents this year?' just never seems to be a viable option.

Part of the reason this maybe never works for me is that I tend to go along quite blinkered until about December 15th over the fact that it is Christmas at all, by which point other more organised acquaintances have shopped for, wrapped and presented me with a gift. I'm not sure quite how I manage to be so unaware of the festivities unfolding around me; Noddy Holder on the radio, trolley rage, shop staff wearing stupid Santa hats - or if they're really cutesy, a bit of tinsel instead of a scrunchie! It's not that I don't hear or see any of this, it's more like I'm coasting along in neutral, let's make that cruise-control since I'm in the States, and I don't actually seem to get into gear and drive until Mid-December. Being overseas this year has caused a few problems with gifting the folks back home. Who knew there were International Shipping Deadlines?! What do you mean the postman won't collect my parcel and get on a plane and take it to my Mum's house?! It could get there in 9 hours if the stupid postman wasn't so lazy! So I've had to be creative: Mum, Dad, sorry but this year you're just going to have to accept an email from me in festive red and green font as a present. It's the gift that keeps on giving - unless you're colourblind, because then it would just look like any other email.

So what do they do in Minneapolis to celebrate 'The Holidays'? Well, it all kicks off at 12.01am on 1st November when I imagine they use some kind of crane/wrecking ball/street-hoover contraption to clear the aisles of Halloween merchandise, possibly aided by a gaggle of tinsel-scrunchie clad shop assistants heaving it all into bin liners. Out come the candy canes, front door wreaths and bad American chocolates (the leading brand of which smells like feet!) and away we go! But Minneapolis has an extra special something to give at this time of year.....

Holidazzle!!!!!! A Minneapolis tradition, people drive all the way from Iowa to come and see it (in fairness, people from Iowa will drive across state lines to see pretty much anything if it gets them out of Iowa for the day). It's the non-denominational November/December parade consisting of lots of jubilant Minnesotans dressed in LED-powered costumes on the theme of fairytales. They march enthusiastically up and down Nicolette Mall every night Thursday through Sunday between Thanksgiving and Christmas in what I can only really describe as an inverse of Las Vegas Blvd....stick with me on this....In Vegas, you move up and down the strip while the flashing neon remains stationary. At holidazzle, it's, well, the opposite of that. Ok, so that was a rubbish comparison, but it's fun! I love the way all the participants remain jolly despite temperatures below-freezing and not getting paid. Can you really imagine that happening in London? It's like the Notting Hill Carnival, only in a marginally colder climate and with less stabbings. I'd imagine they have whatever the US equivalent of St. John's ambulance on hand to treat cases of frost bite and hypothermia. I can see the headlines now: 'And in local news, little Johnny Pizowski's nose fell off this year as a result of being strapped to a float every Thursday through Sunday for two months - "but he looked SO ADORABLE in his gingerbread man costume!" said his mother Lynette.' Perhaps next year he'll have a prosthetic one and be cast as Pinocchio?

In all seriousness, I do mock my fellow countrymen for their excessive enthusiasm for absolutely everything, but I think there are lessons to be learnt for us Brits who do tend to be somewhat, well, cynical. Try this out: Next time someone asks you a question, instead of your usual response of a sharp intake of breath, a shaking of the head and the phrase 'Oh I don't know if I can do that, it's more than my job's worth', try just saying: 'Awesome! Uh-huh!'. Admittedly this may get you into a few awkward conversations*, but generally I find it to be a pretty good response to most things.

So, we are now gearing up to Christmas proper. I am preparing to co-cook my second turkey dinner in a month and cope with the ensuing 'meat sweats'. I found after Thanksgiving that the only way to deal with having eaten more food than I had eaten in the previous week was to adopt what I like to call 'The Starfish' pose on a flat surface (the floor works best), be covered with a blanket and simply remain in that state for the next 36 hours or until you are able to see your own toes again, whichever is sooner. I believe I am now ready; my festive emails will be sent this week in place of presents, the tree is up, I have a tray of mixed nuts and a bottle of Bailey's on the sideboard and I have discarded all of my usual hair accessories and replaced them with scraps of tinsel. Bring it!

*Not to be used in conversations about death, disease, redundancies at work or natural disasters**
** By natural disasters, I of course only mean those occurring in English-speaking countries, all others are natural predicaments.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Back on the radar

Things have been quiet on the blogging front recently. There is a reason for this; I have not had writer's block or lost interest. I've not been isolated from the world because of the black hole that is dial-up. I have been angry, and I'm not sure that it's good to write when angry as I think people have enough misery in their own lives without having to deal with mine too. Suffice to say, visa woes, separation from Mr Hayley just a month after our wedding and illness in the family have all contributed to a pretty shoddy 6 weeks since my last post. But enough of that! I have been in London, fabulous London, whilst waiting for the embassy to get it's act together - oh how I missed it!

Give me Waterloo Station at 5.30pm; weaving in and out of your fellow commuters while the tannoy blares. Give me Westminster Bridge and its views of Big Ben, the Houses of Parliament, the London Eye, the gherkin and St Paul's. Give me wonky streets and wonkier teeth. Give me Oyster and the Tube, cheese and pickle, Fern and Phil, drum and bass! Coming back to all this from some time in the States gives me a new-found appreciation for all things Londinium. I've filled my days with working back at ODI and spent my evenings on opposite ends of the free-time spectrum, either frolicking with friends in various drinking haunts in and around the city, or staying at home and knitting. That's right, knitting. With wool. Previously not the hobby of anyone without a freedom pass, knitting has seen a revival of late and I have happily jumped on the bandwagon. Inspired by a friend at work who was talking about it, I thought 'well if 70 year olds can do it, why can't I?', I mean, how hard can it be?

Well, I would say on the scale of ease - with Rebecca Loos at one end and Stephen Hawking's Brief History of Time at the other - this is about level with playing Stephen Fry at Scrabble. Knit one, purl one, increase, decrease, yarn forward, cast off....who knew it was so complex?! The patterns look like binary code, I keep tangling the wool and have so far managed to knit maybe 11 stitches with no holes or knots. I tried getting expert advice from the lady in 'I Knit' on Lower Marsh, a veritable hub of all things woolly - there's even a knitting club where you go and drink booze, and talk about erm...knitting current affairs I guess, with like-minded individuals. She was fantastic, very knowledgable, and I was most impressed by the fact that she was donning the knitting-equivalent of a hip flask, that is a kind of wool-exuding utility belt, if you can imagine such a thing. She did her best, bless her, but I honestly don't know that I'll ever really understand it. Maybe it's like languages where if I did join a knitting club where you could drink alcohol, my skills would (or at least I would believe) improve. I would have the confidence to knit without fear, with gay abandon, even. Who knows what kind of woolly wonders I could produce?!

Alas, for now I am working on finishing a rather drafty scarf, which I intend to patch up with bijou buttons that I will claim to be part of the original design. I'm also persevering with the baby jumper I have started that was intended to be a gift but I fear would be an insult, and may actually be finished around the time I decide to have El Segundo with him indoors (that would be year six of my new ten-year plan, before you ask). Provided we have a baby with some kind of disproportionately large left arm and hunch back, who looks fab in lilac, we'll be good to go.

Which brings me full circle. The reason I am no longer angry and felt I should write something is that I finally got my visa today and will be flying home to Minneapolis tomorrow. Provided I don't get turned away by my friends at Homeland Security this should be the start of everything. It's a huge weight to be lifted, and though we still have a way to go in terms of getting my work permit, social security number etc, I will at least be a 'permanent resident with conditions' which is far better than 'alien spouse', I believe. Any amount of paperwork, form filling, fee paying and waiting is fine by me as long as I can be with Casey, everything else just seems quite immaterial. So, I am back and will update you in due course on the triumphs and trivialities of my banal existence just so long as I don't get angry again. In the words of The Incredible Hulk "You wouldn't like me when I'm angry."

Monday, September 29, 2008

Fall colours

I have found the place where I want to die. Not anytime soon; after I have founded my multi million pound empire based on my secret salad dressing recipe, of course. I've seen the Grand Canyon, the Rocky Mountains, the Nevada Desert, the Florida Keys and most major landmarks on 41 states in between, but nowhere is as beautiful as Northern Minnesota. Now, I know most people outside of the US are unfamiliar with this little gem, and I know that within the US it's only really famous for fishing and brutal winters (the record low here is minus -41 degrees!), but I think that this may just be a clever conspiracy by Minnesotans to prevent their state becoming overrun with tourists. I'll tell you a few little nuggets about how beautiful it is, as long as you promise to not tell anyone else and to not visit...oh and this blog will self-destruct in five minutes, so read quick.

I've done my fair share of road trips across this great nation and driving through here at this time of year is one of the most scenic, colourful backdrops I have seen. We are just reaching peak time for 'fall colours', and the leaves are turning luminous shades of russet, orange and flame red, others are a deep cherry red and some have a graduated colour change from top to bottom that make the trees look like they're on fire. The air has suddenly turned cold within the past two weeks but the days are crisp and sunny. It's my favourite time of year, I love walking down the street crunching on leaves while smelling a bonfire in the neighbourhood, it reminds me of the hymn we used to sing in school assembly:

"Autumn days, when the grass is jewelled
And the silk in a chestnut shell
Jet planes meeting in the air to be refuelled
All these things I love so well
So I mustn't forget
No, I mustn't forget
To say a great big thank you,
I mustn't forget..."

Remember that one?

Plus, Autumn fashion is my favourite, nothing quite like knee high boots and knitted jumpers to ring in the change of season is there?! Anyway, we drove up to Lake Superior for a weekend of camping using our fabulous new tent and camping stove (which incidentally came without a name from our wedding registry, so if you bought it for us please let me know as we don't know who to thank). The radio on the car journey up t'north is one of the few things which is inferior to driving south - part of the 'Minnesota Conspiracy'...?

When we drive south, we have started to tune into what we have christened 'redneck radio'. These are AM talk-radio stations providing discussion forums on a variety of topics from the Video Music Awards to the nomination of Sarah Palin as VP candidate. A good forty minutes of Kansas plains passed by on the way to our wedding, as Casey and I listened to the likes of Marla from Bowlegs, Oklahoma (pop. 371), voice her horror that Russell Brand - a foreigner, no less!! - had made a pro-Obama statement when hosting the VMA's. It was at that point that she had deemed it inappropriate viewing for her teenage daughter and switched it off. I kid you not, poor little Bobbie-Sue was made to spend the rest of the night sans TV because of the mere mention of 'that Socialist', a word which I never realised was an insult until I moved here.

I have actually developed a curious fondness for country music when driving south, because of how absurdly literal the lyrics are. I'm not sure if this is because the songwriters lack the creativity to grasp metaphor and simile, or if it's because poetry is just seen as 'queer', and that penning a song without a hint of flowery or remotely abstract lyrics directly increases the size of your straight-talking, cattle-rustling, shoot-from-the-hip manhood? For those of you whose experience of country music is limited to Shania Twain and Cotton Eye Joe, here are some actual lyrics that I wrote down while driving through Iowa:

"I'm investing in my neighbourhood, friends and family livin' pretty good,
Trailer parks full of Cadillacs, we're upper-middle class white trash."

Can you imagine my horror when we drove north and found nothing but classic rock stations and the odd high school football game on the radio? Our socialist asses had to engage in a crossword puzzle book and some Def Leppard to pass the time.

We stayed at Cascade River State Park on the north shore of Lake Superior, which is around 45 miles from the Canadian Border. I had absolutely no comprehension of the size of the Lake. I know it's the largest lake in the world bla bla blah, but until you're confronted with what you assume is the ocean (I ditched Geography in year 9 to study Drama) and you're told that, in fact the body of water before you is merely a lake, you have no appreciation for its size. When you stand on the shore, it stretches fully left and right and then out to the horizon. You really have to see it to believe it, but don't come here or the Minnesotans will hate me. I looked it up on the atlas we have pinned up in our toilet, (I believe a bathroom should be both sanitary AND educational), and it is approximately the size of Ireland...Ireland! That's like a real country!

We hiked the Lookout Trail in the park and it's dotted with beautiful cascades and waterfalls, framed by the turning leaves. Every so often you reach a lookout point from which you can see for miles across the blanket of treetops and marvel at the shades of orange, red, green and brown, like the carpet in Abigail's Party.

Property here can be found pretty cheaply if you move a little inland from Lake Superior or onto one of the thousands of other smaller lakes. We're giving serious consideration to buying a cabin to rent out in the summer and use in the autumn and winter ourselves. The idea is that I have somewhere to paint and Casey has somewhere to write, and we'll spend winter months in front of the fire chortling smugly at how wonderfully artistic we both are while sipping port from tin cups. Then, come spring, we'll emerge from our chrysalis laden with the fruits of our winter creativity, ready to hit the press junket, private views and book signings before holing up again the following autumn, and repeating it. In reality, we'd probably get cabin fever and one of us would end up smashing through the toilet door with an axe, or we'd get snowed in and our heating would break down and we'd freeze to death, but it's good to have a dream.

One last marvellous feature of this area, well two actually, is the food: Betty's Pies and World's Best Donuts. I won't go into too much detail as you'll only want to taste it and book the next flight to Minnesota. I'll just say that we queued for forty minutes in Betty's for a slice of 5 Layer Chocolate Pie and took home a whole Rhubarb & Raspberry crunch-top pie, which aside from the time spent listening to Marla from Bowlegs, was one of the hardest forty minutes of my life. World's Best Donuts was exactly that; just a little sugary piece of heaven. I'm officially a convert to a cream-filled Long John (insert witticism here...).

I'm starting to spot a theme to my blogs and am worried that I've only been here 6 weeks and have already turned into a pie-eating, cheese-snuffing, donut-munching hog, but I no longer have a wedding dress to work towards, I have a ring on my finger, I can officially let myself go can't I? I may try to write it off as a foodie feature: as I get to know the country, I get to know a different food type in each area, something like that. All I have to do is sex it up, a la Nigella, and I can have the blogging equivalent of the Marks and Spencer's food-porn ads; (Cue Fleetwood Mac's Albatross) "This is not just a blog, this is Hayley's, all English, home grown, hand-typed, html blog..."

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Say 'cheese'!

The Minnesota State Fair: ‘12 Days of Fun’ proclaim the flags. It was certainly 3 hours of fun,12 days might have been pushing it though. It was a magnifying glass held on all things Minnesotan, and I have to say I liked what I saw...mostly. The fair is primarily an agricultural show attached to a fun fair. It’s famous for frying foods and putting them on a stick, anything you can imagine: lasagna, Twinkies, Belgian waffles, hot dogs, egg rolls - you name it, they can put it on a stick and fry it!

Another impressive aspect of the fair is the butter sculptures of the Princess Kay Finalists. I assumed that the Princess Kay competition was a beauty contest. Apparently I was wrong; the only criteria these delightful young ladies must meet is that they are the daughters of dairy farmers. This entitles said stunners to have their head and shoulders sculpted out of butter and to be displayed in a rotating chilled cabinet, it was reminiscent of the bohemian rhapsody video only with better lighting and worse hairstyles. I’m not entirely sure whether the winner was then decided upon the strength of their buttery likeness or whether some other ag-related yardstick were used; “If I were to be crowned Princess Kay, I would campaign tirelessly for the eradication of butter-substitutes and the plague upon the dairy industry that is ‘spreadable butter’.” Something to that effect anyway.

As a result of attending the fair, I have now started a tie-dye spotting contest, which I aim to monitor in future posts. Can you imagine my horror shortly upon entering the fair when confronted with a whole family - not just one oddball, but a whole family - sporting tie-dye T-shirts?! Casey explained that some people wear them so that they can’t lose each other. I am of the firm opinion that if you dress your children in tie-dye, frankly you deserve to lose them to social services. If you’re so concerened about the little mites running off, carry a flag at the front of the party, tie them with string chain-gang style, even get one of those horrendous snippets of Americana that is the family vacation t-shirt printed: ‘The Wacowski Family does Disneyland, 2008!!!’ Anything but the tie-dye, this is the kind of thing which results in angry young adults with access to firearms.

My horror was soon subdued with an almost local delicacy that is the cheese curd. These popcorn sized nuggets of yum hail from the neighbouring state of Wisconsin, ‘The Cheese State’. Clearly I've moved to the wrong place. I am in ‘The land of 10,000 Lakes’, whilst extremely pretty and a kayaker’s haven, you can’t eat a tray of lakes on the way home from the pub dipped in chilli ketchup.

Cheese curds are deep fried little lumps of cheese that melt in your mouth and are little known outside of the USA, and even then are only really widely available in the more northern states generally. If I were Princess Kay, my promise to the world would be to mass-market cheese curds and share the joy that is deep-fried cheese, I’m pretty sure that would earn me a Nobel Prize. Even if I could just get Americans to appreciate good cheddar, I would feel like my duties as dairy princess would be somewhat worthwhile. An aged cheddar here is anything that is over 6 months old and they seem to regard burger cheese as ‘sharp’. I spent 40mins in Uptown Rainbow yesterday glowering with derision at the tiny overpriced array of ‘mature cheddar’ that had a combined age of perhaps four years and tasted as sharp as a sofa. I like to think of myself as a bit of a cheese buff, and I have to say, this just will not do. Minnesota is treading on thin ice with me here and if I can’t find a reasonably priced cheddar outside of a hippy co-op specialising in gourmet imports, I may have to up sticks and move to Wisconsin, lakes are overrated anyway.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

9 days

It's been 9 days since I flew over to the land of the free and home of the brave. I was taken in to the passport control office at MSP airport and grilled for about 40mins by a rotund immigration officer with a brush moustache and a comb over. She asked me all kinds of questions about my plans, my visa application and my 'relationship with an American citizen'. I was polite and honest and after consulting a fellow rotund mustachioed colleague, she deemed me worthy of a stamp in my little book. I have decided to surgically attach this little book to me from now on, having been refused beer yesterday with only my UK driver's licence as ID.

I am still enjoying my unemployment and choose to fill my time with making wedding favours and writing placecards with silver Sharpies in swirly fonts. I have unpacked one suitcase and littered the floor of the apartment with the contents of the other. I have attended one barbeque and one first birthday party. I have seen Batman at the IMAX and for the record thought Ledger is better than Nicholson as the Joker. I like Michael Caine as Alfred, though I have come to think of him as the British Jennifer Aniston in that he always just plays himself. (Insert Michael Caine impression here......)

I live in uptown, have driven through midtown (without stopping if we can help it) and trawled downtown on a Friday night. I haven't seen as many pasty adolescent thighs and breasts on display since the Chicken Out! campaign. I have realised that comprehension of my accent by barmaids and waitresses directly correlates to the length of their skirts, no matter how slowly and clearly I speak. If only primary school teachers moonlighted as barmaids, I'd be crystal clear every time.

I fight the urge daily to buy a notepad and pretend to be a mute so I can just write down what I want and show it to people. I challenge myself in small ways to overcome my fear of speaking out loud by making a little trip to a different cafe each day and ordering for myself, noting the amount of times I am asked to repeat myself and keeping a little scorecard for each establishment: ultra-trendy Winehouse-wannabe barrista? 1 point. free wi-fi? 1 point. good mocha frap? 2 points. Able to order without doing a Fargo impression? 7 points, and so on. I have yet to master a phone call.

I made some new friends on Saturday at Cora's house (I worked with Cora at ODI in London and she strangely lives 45 mins away from me here); Jonas and Genelle, a German/American couple who know Cora through the tangled web that is the LSE (London School of Economics) connection, which shits all over the Kevin Bacon connection as everyone seems to be linked in two moves as opposed to Bacon's gargantuan six. Honestly, ask the next person you see if they went to LSE or know someone who did, I guarantee they will say yes. Jonas and Genelle are getting married this saturday in Minneapolis and live 7 blocks from us. Genelle's favourite wine is Gew├╝rztraminer which is made at the Wambsganss winery in the Black Forest. Jonas watches the Arsenal matches at Brit's pub with his footy team. They are like some euro/yank mirror image of us across the Lake St divide. They're cool.

I was told the other day that because of my voice and the fact that I even know the smallest amount about 'soccer' I could get a job commentating on local sport radio. The same guy told me he thought it was funny that we called soccer football. I agreed that it was hysterical that we called something by the name it was given in the country that invented it. It was at that moment I believe my accent became slightly less charming.

So, my to-do list for the next few days:

1) Complete my inventory of local cafes and produce a deck of 'Cafe Top Trumps' cards.
2) Try to sell my Top Trumps cards to Minnepolis tourist authority.
3) Single-handedly establish a Minneapolis tourist authority with the slogan 'Come to Minneapolis - it's cheaper than Chicago!'
4) Redo the placecards that Casey spilt tea on when he tripped on the rug.
5) Buy Casey a Tommee Tippee mug and laminate all my future creations.
6) Bake a pie (because I can)
7) Laminate my pie.
8) Visit the Minnesota State Fair, where Casey was once paid to be a security guard for the mascot dept, assigned to a purple robot.
9) Take a photo to go with this blog.